MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Sundance: It’s a Wrap

In the year of its 25th anniversary, the Sundance Film Festival coincided with the inauguration of a new president who offers hope to a country beaten down by war and a tough economic climate; it’s the first time in my own adult life I’ve ever cared enough about the inauguration to block out time on my own schedule to watch it, and you could hear the crickets chirping around Park City the morning of January 20th as folks skipped screenings to attend any number of inauguration bashes. The mood at Sundance this year, especially given the quality of films, should have felt festive, even buoyant. Overall though, the air at the fest was low-key and somber.

A lot of journalists who were Sundance regulars in years past were missing in action. When we went to check in and get our press passes the morning after arriving in Park City, we got to the press office a bit late and expected to be waiting in the usual long line to pick up our badges; we didn’t have to wait in line at all. In fact, we had to get the attention of the bored volunteers working the press table, who seemed happy to have something to do when we got there. Publicists who have been Sundance mainstays in years past were absent this fest as well, and there were hallway conversations about what all this meant: “If so-and-so isn’t even here at Sundance this year, things must really be getting bad…” Yeah, they are.

On the one hand, it was an unusually pleasant fest in many respects. The throngs that usually crowd Main Street were smaller and generally there seemed to be more focus on film and less on swag suites. There were still long lines to get into press screenings (this year, relegated outside to a heated tent rather than snaking down the hallway of the Yarrow hallway), but a lot of folks figured out early on that it was pretty much unnecessary to waste a lot of time twiddling your thumbs in line. You could show up five minutes before a screening and still get a decent seat for most films. And once you got in, the screening room at the Yarrow finally had comfy theater seats imported from the Telluride Film Festival, a welcome change from the hard plastic seats that we journalists had to sit on in the past.

On the other hand, the effects of the down-turned economy could be seen all over Park City. Hotels usually booked up months in advance still had rooms available at the last minute; restaurants where you normally can’t eat without a reservation made well in advance had empty tables, and managers of some restaurants, including the Chinese buffet near the Holiday Village, where many press screenings are held, reported significant downturns in their anticipated fest income. Even the Albertson’s, typically bustling throughout the fest as everyone stocks up on bottled water and refills their condo coffers, was oddly quiet — although they did, as they seem to every year, run out of Camel Lights by the third day of the fest. Even the weather was quiet this year. Where last year Sundance saw day after day of relentless snow, topped off by a blizzard that hit just as everyone was getting out of town, this year saw nary a flake, and the shuttle signs that merrily proclaimed “Let it Snow!” seemed almost maudlin.

But Sundance is really about the films, right?

And the slate of films, for the most part, seemed unusually weighted toward the “good” side of the scale, something many of my fellow journalists could be overheard discussing in lines, on the shuttles (generally way less crowded than is usual for Sundance, although fewer of them seemed to be running this year), and over drinks at the Yarrow Bar. When you cover the fest circuit regularly, you get used to the fact that you’re doing to slough through a good many middling-bad-to-terrible films at any given  fest. But this year at Sundance there was way more good than bad in the mix. Almost everything I saw was at least “decent,” and I wasn’t alone in being surprised at the overall quality of the slate. Whether this speaks to the quality of the films the fest had to choose from this year or to the improved taste of the programming staff, after a rough year for film journalists, the respite of at least having a decent Sundance slate was most welcome.

I’d be hard pressed to choose a single favorite film of Sundance this year, but there were several films that could have vied for that spot, including HumpdayAn EducationPush,Peter and VandyRough Aunties, and The Vicious Kind.

Humpday was perhaps the most surprising film of the fest for me. Written and directed byLynn Shelton (My Effortless BrillianceWe Go Way Back),Humpday ponders what might happen if two straight guys who’ve known each other for years decided in a moment of drunken revelry to enter an amateur porn competition, with themselves as the star players. In spite of having Seattle’s popular amateur porn extravaganza, Humpfest, at the center of the storyline, though, the film focuses more on the relationship between the two pals (played by Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard) than on being racy. Shelton followed a development process similar to that used by renowned Brit director Mike Leigh, hammering out the basic story structure ahead of time, but fleshing out the details of characters and dialogue with her cast; the result is a film that feels like it evolved organically, with dialogue that feels natural and well-constructed, for all that it was largely unscripted, and the chemistry between both Duplass and Leonard and Duplass and his on-screen wife, Alycia Delmore, is great.

Set in late 1960s London, the Lone Scherfig-directed An Education follows Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a 16-year-old student studying to take her A-Level exams so she can get into Oxford, as she’s swept off her feet by David (Peter Sarsgaard), a much older playboy —  with the complicity of her decidedly boring and middle-class parents. The smart script by Nick Hornby (About a BoyHigh Fidelity) has a lot to say about the choices available to young women at that period of time. Here’s this brilliant young girl whose life paths are either becoming a teacher or civil servant, or finding the right match for a marriage so her parents don’t have to worry that she’ll be well-cared for. Hard as it might be to swallow the idea that Jenny’s parents would not only condone, but encourage, her relationship with this charming, wealthy, much-older man, the script sets up well the reasons why they do so in a believable way. Mulligan charms effortlessly on-screen, evoking the smartness and screen presence of a young Audrey Hepburn, and the film overall works remarkably well. Lesson learned: If you’re 16 and Peter Sarsgaard wants to have sex with you, run like hell.

Audience-and-jury favorite Push scored mixed reactions from critics, with some finding the execution problematic and the storyline a tough sell to potential mainstream audiences. I fell on the side of liking the film more than not, thought the material is raw and wrenching and sometimes tough to watch. The film, adapted from the novel of the same name by New York-based poet and artist Sapphire, based on her real experiences working with girls in a Harlem alternative school, Push is about Precious Jones (Gabby Sidibe), an illiterate-but-intelligent 16-year-old girl in Harlem who’s pregnant with the second child fathered by her own father.

Precious’ life starts to turn around when she gets into an alternative school. The film’s strongest point is a searing performance by Mo’Nique as Precious’ abusive, nightmarish mother. While the film is ultimately more about hope and redemption than despair, Sapphire clearly has things to say through Precious’ tale about the effects of the welfare system in crushing the human spirit, the absence of Black fathers, and a matriarchal structure within poor Black communities, not all of which I necessarily agree with. She mostly avoids the pitfalls of other “redemption through a teacher who magically connects with those poor students” films, keeping the focus on this one girl and how she manages to rise above the bleakness and despair of her life to forge a better, albeit bittersweet path for herself and her children. Push certainly resonated with crowds at Sundance, but it remains to be seen how well that response will carry over into mainstream distribution.

Also falling in the “tough to watch, but worth it” category is documentary Rough Aunties, which follows a small group of women in South Africa who run a child abuse advocacy group called Bobbi Bear. The personalities of the women of Bobbi Bear and the remarkable work they do in helping children who are victims of abuse far surpasses the film’s technical weaknesses. We see these women at their best and their worst, breaking down over abuse done to a small child, and dealing with tragedies in their own lives as well, and I couldn’t help but measure up my own contributions to society against the roles these women are playing in the lives of the children who depend on them for help, and find myself coming up short. If the rest of the film doesn’t get to you, the final shot will — I’m not going to say more than that about it because it would spoil it, but — trust me on this — bring a tissue, or a whole pack of them, if you have a chance to see this film.

Peter and Vandy was one of the most pleasant surprises of the fest for me; something about this little film just struck a chord inside me, and I loved it far more than I expected to going in. The film uses a non-linear structure to chart the history of the relationship between the title characters, played with fantastic chemistry by Jason Ritter and Jess Weixler, who shared the best actress award for her film Teeth at Sundance 2007 with Four Sheets to the Wind‘s Tamara Podemski. This time around, Weixler’s gone the indie-drama route rather than indie-horror, and much as I liked her in Teeth, this genre seems to be a much better niche for her talents.

The film’s non-linear structure doesn’t feel precious or contrived; rather, it serves to highlight the ups and downs of romantic relationships. In my favorite scene of the film, writer-directorJay Pietro juxtaposes Peter and Vandy walking home from the store at two different points in their relationship. In one, they are smiling, laughing, making eye contact, and Peter, though weighed down with his own load, stops to take most of Vandy’s bags as well; in the other, Peter and Vandy walk with icy distance between them, each struggling with their own loads with no eye contact, shared camaraderie or laughter to lighten their individual burdens. It’s a great scene, completely visual, that tells us all we need to know about their relationship at each point without a single word of expository dialogue, and most of the film works on that level. It’s like seeing slices of a relationship at all its phases through hidden camera, where the players are actually talking and reacting to each other rather than simply talking for the benefit of providing information to the viewer.

Another film that got to me in a surprising way was The Vicious Kind, which, on the surface, didn’t seem to be a film I was likely to enjoy. For one thing, the main character is a misogynistic, woman-hating jerk, and my tolerance for men like that falls somewhere around my tolerance for having a root canal performed with no anesthetic, but stick with it past the opening scenes and there’s a definite pay-off. Caleb (Adam Scott, in a powerful performance ) is a woman-hating misogynist, but he’s also a deeply wounded, broken man lashing out at the world, and Scott manages to convey the tragic side of Caleb without being apologetic for his numerous overt flaws. Brittany Snow is also great as Emma, the girlfriend of Caleb’s younger, virginal brother Peter. Caleb finds himself first attracted to Emma, then obsessing over her — and the attraction that pulls them toward each other is mutual; a lot of women watching this film will probably recognize themselves in Emma — that tendency to look at a broken man and wonder if we have what it takes to heal him, the conflicting push-pull of repulsion and attraction that drives certain women into unhealthy relationships with men they should be running from. J.K. Simmons also has a great turn here as Caleb and Peter’s father, whose rejection of his older son largely drives Caleb’s angst and dysfunction. Great movie, with a lot more going on than there seems at first, and I hope it finds an audience outside the fest circuit.

– by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon